Today I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion of my friend Rob Miner’s new book Nietzsche and Montaigne. This is the outline of my talk.

On Health

Introductory thoughts

  • First of all, what a superb book this is!
  • My learning is not comparable to Rob’s, so all you’ll get from me is a kind of riff on a theme that, when I was reading Rob’s book, struck me as especially interesting, and that theme is health.
  • The question of what makes for a healthy human life — and I want to stress the importance of this idea of health as opposed to something like Aristotelian eudaimonia, — is an essential one for Montaigne, and Nietzsche picks up on that, at first endorsing but ultimately revising Montaigne’s understanding.
  • I’m going to unpack that claim very briefly and suggestively here, and claim (there’s no time today to argue) that insofar as the two thinkers differ, Montaigne has the better of it.

Health in Montaigne

  • As Rob writes (p.45):
    • “Montaigne understands philosophy as a power or virtue that dwells in the soul, making it and the body healthy. It aims to have a certain effect on its practitioner. What is this effect? Philosophy, he writes, ‘should make tranquility and gladness shine out from within, should form in its own mold the outward demeanor, and consequently arm it with graceful pride, an active and joyous bearing, and a contented and good-natured countenance.’ [The anticipation of Nietzsche’s designation of true philosophy as a “gay science” should be obvious. Rob now comments,] Here two aspects of the human person are distinguished: an inward and an outward. Philosophy brings these aspects togerther, so that the outward expresses the inward, resulting in the rare condition that Montaigne calls ‘healthy.’ Health is the condition that philosophy brings about; it is not the default condition.”
    • Rob then quotes a passage from the essay “Of Presumption”: “The body has a great part in our being, it holds a high rank in it; so its structure and composition are well worth consideration.”
  • Now, I would like to suggest — and I make this suggest under correction by nobler minds — that in his later essays Montaigne shifts this emphasis somewhat. Consider this famous passage from “Of Repentance”:
    • “Meanwhile I loathe that consequential [or ‘accidental’] repenting which old age brings. That Ancient who said that he was obliged to the passing years for freeing him from sensual pleasures held quite a different opinion from mine: I could never be grateful to infirmity for any good it might do me…. Our appetites are few when we are old: and once they are over we are seized by a profound disgust. I can see nothing of conscience in that: chagrin and feebleness imprint on us a lax and snotty virtue. We must not allow ourselves to be so borne away by natural degeneration that it bastardizes our judgement…. My temptations are so crippled and enfeebled that they are not worth opposing. I can conjure them away by merely stretching out my hands. Confront my reason with my former longings and I fear that that it will show less power of resistance than once it did. I cannot see that, of itself, it judges in any way differently now than it did before, nor that it is freshly enlightened. So if it has recovered it is a botched recovery. A wretched sort of cure, to owe one’s health to sickliness.”
    • He then argues for a kind of commensurate exchange of virtue between the mind and the body: “Let the mind awaken and quicken the heaviness of the body: let the body arrest the lightness of the mind and fix it fast.”
    • And at this point Montaigne does something rather unusual, for him — he quotes a Christian authority, St. Augustine, from the City of God: “He who eulogizes the nature of the soul as the sovereign good and who indicts the nature of the flesh as an evil desires the soul with a fleshly desire and flees from the flesh in a fleshly way, since his thought is based on human vanity not on divine truth.”
  • So I think Montaigne may have reached a position near the end of his life where he might not believe, as he once did, that “philosophy [is] a power or virtue that dwells in the soul, making it and the body healthy.” He might say rather that whether one is capable of philosophy depends as much on the “power or virtue” of the body as to the excellence of the mind — and that, by ignoring this fact, we come to think that we have become true philosophers, fully enacting our philosophical commitments, when in fact we have only suffered debilitation of the body. We interpret bodily disease as mental strength.
  • Montaigne does not seem to think that we can do anything about this: we cannot make the body strong again when through old age or some other affliction it begins to fail. But we can at least know our own true condition.

Health in Nietzsche

  • In a crucial passage near the end of his book, Rob returns to the matter of health — not for the first time, mind you — and explores the notion of “great health” that Nietzsche introduces late in The Gay Science (#382). There are many things that one could say about this exceptional section of Nietzsche’s great transitional work.
    • Nietzsche introduces the concept thus: “We who are new, nameless, hard to understand; we premature births of an as yet unproved future – for a new end, we also need a new means, namely, a new health that is stronger, craftier, tougher, bolder, and more cheerful than any previous health.” (Note the persistent emphasis, which wwe see also in Montaigne, on cheerfulness).
    • And at the end of the section he suggests that only great health can produce a new great seriousness: “the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often enough appear inhuman for example, when it places itself next to all earthly seriousness heretofore, all forms of solemnity in gesture, word, tone, look, morality, and task as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody – and in spite of all this, it is perhaps only with it that the great seriousness really emerges; that the real question mark is posed for the first time; that the destiny of the soul changes; the hand of the clock moves forward; the tragedy begins.” (Isn’t that last clause rather startling?)
    • But I want to focus on something else in the section, something almost buried and yet vital: “Anyone who wants to know from the adventures of his own experience how it feels to be the discoverer or conqueror of an ideal, or to be an artist, a saint, a lawmaker, a sage, a pious man, a soothsayer, an old-style divine loner – any such person needs one thing above all – the great health, a health that one doesn’t only have, but also acquires continually and must acquire because one gives it up again and again, and must give it up!”
  • Why must one give it up, and what does that mean?
    • Here we need to turn to Nietzsche’s last book, Ecco Homo, where he quotes the entirety of the section of The Gay Science I have just explored, and connects it to Zarathustra as an ideal type: he says that “great health” is the physiological precondition of Zarathustra, and therefore of what Nietzsche wants to be.
    • And yet, still in Ecce Homo, immediately after citing this passage Nietzsche writes, “Afterwards” — that is, after writing the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or as Nietzsche would say after “finding” it — “I lay ill for a few weeks in Genoa. This was followed by a melancholy spring in Rome, when I put up with life — it was not easy.” This does not sound like someone in great health!
    • But his point here is that the achievement of something great inevitably depletes one’s energies, is costly to one’s health. When walking in the mountains to “find” his book, he says, “my muscular agility has always been at its greatest when my creative energy is flowing most abundantly. The body is inspired: let’s leave the ‘soul’ out of it… I could often be seen dancing; in those days I could be walking around on mountains for seven or eight hours without a trace of tiredness. I slept well and laughed a lot — I was the epitome of sprightliness and patience.”
    • Then came what he calls the crisis: “everything great, be it a work or a deed, once it has been accomplished, immediately turns against whoever did it. By virtue of having done it, he is now weak — he can no longer endure his deed, can no longer face up to it. To have something behind you that you should never have wanted, something that constitutes a nodal point in the destiny of humanity — and from then on to have it on top of you!… It almost crushes you.”
    • A little later Nietzsche says of this kind of experience: “This is how a god suffers.” But another way to put the point is: Because I suffer so profoundly, I must be a god.

Concluding thoughts

  • So let me now try to draw these threads together.
    • For Montaigne, it is surely true that health is mens sana in corpore sano, but because we are mortal, because we age and decline, the healthy mind must also be one that accommodates itself to the body’s inevitable changes. This means that a healthy mind in a less-than-healthy body must seek a kind of self-knowledge that is hard for prideful human beings, who always want to give themselves credit they don’t deserve. Montaigne believed that one should always, as the Stoics taught, strive to live “according to nature,” and since it is our nature to grow old and feeble before we die, that Stoic mandate requires a certain ironic acceptance of declining powers. This is the kind of health appropriate to a changeable mortal.
    • For Nietzsche, by contrast, this might be all well and good for the “higher cattle” — but not for one who aspires to the great seriousness. For one of the Zarathustra type, life is an endless dialectic of boundless, ecstatic energy and exhausted disease. Indeed, this is, I think what great health is: not the energy alone, but the energy and the exhaustion in inevitable exchange.
    • And this is why it is impossible to conceive of Nietzsche as an old man.